Many PhD students are now in the final throes of writing their thesis. Turning years of research into a single, coherent piece of work can be tough, so we asked for tips from supervisors and recent PhD graduates. We were inundated with tweets and emails – and @AcademiaObscura helpfully created a Storify of the tweets. Below is a selection of the best tips.
1) Make sure you meet the PhD requirements for your institution
“PhD students and their supervisors often presume things without checking. One supervisor told his student that a PhD was about 300 pages long so he wrote 300 pages. Unfortunately the supervisor had meant double-spaced, and the student had written single-spaced. Getting rid of 40,000 extra words with two weeks to go is not recommended.” (Hannah Farrimond, lecturer in medical sociology, Exeter University)
2) Keep perspective
“Everyone wants their thesis to be amazing, their magnum opus. But your most important work will come later. Think of your PhD as an apprenticeship. Your peers are unlikely to read your thesis and judge you on it. They are more likely to read any papers (articles, chapters, books) that result from it.” (Dean D’Souza, PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Birkbeck, University of London)
3) Write the introduction last
“Writing the introduction and conclusion together will help to tie up the thesis together, so save it for the end.” (Ashish Jaiswal, PhD in business education, University of Oxford)
4) Use apps
“Trello is a project management tool (available as a smartphone app) which allows you to create ‘boards’ on which to pin all of your outstanding tasks, deadlines, and ideas. It allows you to make checklists too so you know that all of your important stuff is listed and to-hand, meaning you can focus on one thing at a time. It’s satisfying to move notes into the ‘done’ column too.” (Lucy Irving, PhD in psychology, Middlesex University)
5) Address the unanswered questions
“There will always be unanswered questions – don’t try to ignore or, even worse, obfuscate them. On the contrary, actively draw attention to them; identify them in your conclusion as areas for further investigation. Your PhD viva will go badly if you’ve attempted to disregard or evade the unresolved issues that your thesis has inevitably opened up.” (Michael Perfect, PhD in English literature, University of Cambridge)
6) Buy your own laser printer
“A basic monochrome laser printer that can print duplex (two-sided) can be bought online for less than £100, with off-brand replacement toners available for about £30 a pop. Repeatedly reprinting and editing draft thesis chapters has two very helpful functions. Firstly, it takes your work off the screen and onto paper, which is usually easier to proof. Secondly, it gives you a legitimate excuse to get away from your desk.” (James Brown, PhD in architectural education, Queen’s University Belfast)
7) Checking is important
“On days when your brain is too tired to write, check quotations, bibliography etc so you’re still making progress.” (Julia Wright, professor of English at Dalhousie University, Canada)
8) Get feedback on the whole thesis
“We often get feedback on individual chapters but plan to get feedback from your supervisor on the PhD as a whole to make sure it all hangs together nicely.” (Mel Rohse, PhD in peace studies, University of Bradford)
9) Make sure you know when it will end
“Sometimes supervisors use optimistic words such as ‘You are nearly there!’ Ask them to be specific. Are you three months away, or do you have six months’ worth of work? Or is it just a month’s load?” (Rifat Mahbub, PhD in women’s studies, University of York)
10) Prepare for the viva
“Don’t just focus on the thesis – the viva is very important too and examiners’ opinions can change following a successful viva. Remember that you are the expert in your specific field, not the examiners, and ask your supervisor to arrange a mock viva if practically possible.” (Christine Jones, head of school of Welsh and bilingual studies, University of Wales Trinity St David)
11) Develop your own style
“Take into account everything your supervisor has said, attend to their suggestions about revisions to your work but also be true to your own style of writing. What I found constructive was paying attention to the work of novelists I enjoy reading. It may seem that their style has nothing to do with your own field of research, but this does not matter. You can still absorb something of how they write and what makes it effective, compelling and believable.” (Sarah Skyrme, PhD in sociology, Newcastle University)
12) Remember that more is not always better
“A PhD thesis is not a race to the highest page count; don’t waste time padding.” (Francis Woodhouse, PhD in mathematical biology, University of Cambridge)
13) Get a buddy
“Find a colleague, your partner, a friend who is willing to support you. Share with them your milestones and goals, and agree to be accountable to them. This doesn’t mean they get to hassle or nag you, it just means someone else knows what you’re up to, and can help to check if your planning is realistic and achievable.” (Cassandra Steer, PhD in criminology, University of Amsterdam)
14) Don’t pursue perfectionism
“Remember that a PhD doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Nothing more self-crippling than perfectionism.” (Nathan Waddell, lecturer in modernist literature, Nottingham University)
15) Look after yourself
“Go outside. Work outside if you can. Fresh air, trees and sunshine do wonders for what’s left of your sanity.” (Helen Coverdale, PhD in law, LSE)
• Do you have any tips to add? Share your advice in the comments below.
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Last month, we offered suggestions on how to prepare for your thesis defence: Decide whether you need more research results, sketch out a plan for those experiments and for writing thesis chapters, and--importantly--get your supervisor's support for that plan. Now it's time to wrap things up in the lab and start writing.
Writing a thesis is easier said than done, of course, and you have plenty of work ahead. But like any big undertaking, writing a thesis is easier if you break it down into smaller steps.
First things first
If you haven't already made a countdown plan as described in last month's column, start with that first. Then, before you start writing, make sure you and your supervisor agree on the table of contents. This might seem obvious, but we have seen too many students start working on chapters only to have those chapters tossed out later.
Cut the problem down to size
Once you've decided on a table of contents, it's time to expand it into a detailed outline. Your outline will be several pages long and consist of chapter headings, subheadings, figure and table titles, some key words, and essential comments. Your outline will keep you on track and provide you with a framework for the text. It also forces you to break up the writing into manageable pieces.
Determine the format
Your department or university may have a standard format for your thesis. If so, there's probably a standard template you should use. If not, save yourself frustration and time by copying the format from a thesis that appeals to you. Make sure the format or template is easy to use. Once you've sent your thesis to your committee for review, you may consider upgrading your layout. For now, factor the format into your plan, but don't make it your primary concern.
While we're on the subject of format, be sure to use the proper citation format for your list of references. This list can run into the hundreds, so use the approved format for citing literature from the very beginning--both in the text and for the list of the references at the end. Use a good citation-manager program and enter all the information for every article referenced--including titles. You won't want to have to go back and redo this if you've done it wrong!
Transform published articles into thesis chapters
Before you delve into the chapters you have to write from scratch, start by transforming your published articles and submitted manuscripts into thesis chapters. It's not just a matter of stapling your papers together and sticking them into your thesis, however. You'll need to break the publications into pieces and weave them into a cohesive narrative, making sure the various parts fit together nicely without redundancies or gaps in logic. When doing this, keep the following in mind:
Drastically cut back or rewrite the introduction section of each article. There is no need to repeat what you will have already explained in the general introduction and literature survey of your thesis. Don't just delete those introductions, however; parts of your manuscript intros will be useful for your thesis introduction, so paste any relevant text into the intro section of your thesis outline for later editing.
Cut the Materials and Methods section as necessary to avoid repetition with other chapters. Again, you'll probably want to paste some of the Materials and Methods text into the relevant sections in your thesis.
Include text that may have been cut from the final version of the article due to space restrictions.
Update your literature citations (see above).
If someone else wrote one of your publications (i.e., you did the experiments but a more senior person wrote the manuscript), we suggest you rewrite the bulk of the text in your own words. Even if experiments were done in collaboration, a thesis has only one author--you--and the words in it should be yours.
After you've transformed your published articles into chapters, you will have to write new material for the remaining chapters. When you first start writing, it helps to begin with an easy section. This will give you confidence and get you into the writing habit. Because the methodology chapter is relatively straightforward, you might want to start with that one. If you've already written several methodology sections for your peer-reviewed articles, it won't take much time to prepare a first draft for your thesis.
Because a thesis has fewer space restrictions, you should take the opportunity to describe the details of your work that did not make it into published articles. In a thesis, it is better to err on the side of being too detailed than to risk leaving out crucial information. Be generous to the next generation of researchers; a detailed description of your progress and failures will save them a lot of time.
Writing up that last set of experiments
Now that you have worked your way through the initial chapters and have written most of your thesis, it is time to tackle writing up your final project. You probably haven't written an article on this research yet, so you'll need to decide whether to write the article first and then transform it into a chapter or do it the other way around.
If there is stiff competition in your field, your supervisor will probably insist that you write the article first. Otherwise, we suggest that you write the chapter first, as this approach will allow you to describe your work in detail. While the thesis is out for review with your dissertation committee, you can select the appropriate parts from the chapter and transform it into an article to submit to a peer-reviewed journal.
10 Tips for a Stress-Free Thesis
The introduction: The final hurdle
Although it comes first, the introduction will probably be the last chapter you write. The introduction is where you need to place your work in a broader context, explaining why the research is relevant to the scientific community and (assuming it is) to society.
Start thinking about your introduction long before you start writing your thesis. During your final year--or even earlier--create a file in which you collect ideas and article clippings that could be useful for the introduction. A file of good ideas will be a big help in writing a comprehensive and elegant introduction when the pressure is on.
The summary is the one section of your thesis that is sure to be read widely. In a few pages you will have to describe the main findings of your thesis research, so it is best to write this part after you have finished all the other chapters. Do not try to describe all your results in the summary--you're simply summarizing the bulk of your work. Be sure to designate in the summary which chapters contain particular findings.
Safeguard your work
We shouldn't have to remind you to back up your work, but we will anyway. Keep a copy of your thesis on an external hard drive, memory stick, or some other storage device. Back up daily and keep the copy (or copies) in a safe place. For extra security, keep a copy of your work-in-progress off-site on a remote server (in the event of fire or theft). The simplest way to do this is to open a Web-based e-mail account and regularly e-mail your work to yourself. There are also companies that offer online document-storage services.
Going for gold: Writing an error-free thesis
Because a thesis is usually written under severe time constraints, it is difficult to produce one without some typos and other minor errors. Spell checkers help, but they can't catch errors in those hard-to-spell technical terms. In addition, errors of grammar and syntax are not always highlighted, and minor scientific errors can be easily overlooked. Your goal, of course, is to have as few errors as possible.
We suggest you do two things to help make this a reality. First, put the manuscript aside for a short while after you've written the first draft. Once you've gained some distance from the material, read it over again with a sharp eye--not for content, but as a proofreader looking for typographical errors. Second, give a copy of your thesis to one or two trusted peers to read. Devise a creative way to reward them for every error they find (free cups of coffee or beer, or pizza, for example). This will give them an incentive to go through your thesis with a fine-toothed comb. If you can afford it, you may even consider hiring a professional copy editor to do this for you.
Most importantly, while writing your thesis, be sure to take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, and get plenty of sleep so you're at your best when you sit down every day to write. This is the home stretch of your Ph.D., and you want to make sure you cross the finish line energized and ready for the next step.
Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Gosling is a senior medical writer at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics in Germany and freelance science writer. Noordam is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a regional audit organization. He has also worked for McKinsey and Co.
Images. Top: Paul Worthington. Middle: courtesy, Springer.
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Patricia Gosling is a coauthor of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Gosling is a senior medical writer at CMPMedica in Malaysia and a freelance science writer.
Bart Noordam is a coauthor of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). He is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a regional audit organization. He has also worked for McKinsey & Co.